I teach people how to write.
I’ve done this for a number of years, since 2005, actually. I’ve helped people do what I do because they are paying a college for my service. They are also trying to get a grade, which doesn’t always connect with the whole “learning” thing. When I first started doing this, I just talked, long and hard, about stuff. I made them read a book and then we talked about it. I made them write some stuff and then we talked about it. My goal was to have them act as if they were writers, walking the walk and talking the talk. Lately, I’ve started to reevaluate this, think deep about exactly what I’m trying to do around here. It happened when I told a colleague about a writing assignment I was giving them. It’s a classic Creative Writing assignment where the student sits somewhere and listens to conversations by people in a coffee shop or a bus stop or at school. The goal is to teach the student how real dialogue sounds. It isn’t heavy or over reaching. It’s real and choppy and imperfect. People talk in a horrible way. My goal was to show them this in a real world application. My colleague asked the question my students should have asked but never did.
Why was a doing it? Well, I know “why.” I just explained it. But I didn’t explain it to the students. I didn’t tell them “why” they were reading something or why we were talking about this or working on this project. I was just making them do it because that’s what I always did. This isn’t bad, really. I was just becoming complacent. I was getting comfortable. My colleague’s one-word question got me thinking about homework in general. Should I give a student a girth of work to do over the weekend because they have a weekend to do it and that’s what we are supposed to do, give homework? Why should I give my student’s homework because that’s what I always did? Should I have a reason to give my student’s homework? Shouldn’t there be some logic behind it? Instead of pushing them and pushing them and pushing them and grading one horrible, terrible paper after the other, shouldn’t I, I don’t know, have some strategy?
“No homework,” I said to my class. It was a Thursday and they didn’t come back until Tuesday. That was four full days where nothing about writing would touch their lives. A few of them looked up at me and waited, as if it was a trick question.
“None?” one of them asked.
“I mean, I have something planned out, but you’re not ready for it. So it would be stupid to give you an assignment that you’re not ready for.”
They bolted out of the class so quickly that I swear I saw dust pop off their feet.
Writing makes people nervous. It’s not hard for me. I naturally can write. It’s intuitive. But that’s not the case for everyone. It gets worse when the students are working on a creative endeavor, trying to become “writers” and not just someone who writes. I felt this stress when I was teaching my Creative Writing class. We were discussing one of the stories and the subject of “depth” came up, the idea that some stories are deeper than others, that some stories are bad and some are good because of the weight of them, the subject matter, the talking points. I remembered my new rule. I couldn’t just “say” that modern romance or science fiction books were bad. I had to say “why” they were bad, why we weren’t reading them, why we had other things to focus on.
“Because there is this idea that the internal struggle, the internal, in contemporary fiction, is important. It’s relevant. It’s the only thing that matters,” I said. “We could read graphic novels and go over how awesome swords and space-ships are. But we can also read these short stories that talk about heart break and loss and new love and great and hate and disdain and talk about how they work. These writer’s in this book, the writer’s in this anthology, they know pain. And, yeah, it’s super sad and depressing. But, I mean, maybe if we read about it, we can avoid feeling it. Or maybe we can finally understand what we’re feeling.”